It is seven years since Maria Sharapova announced her arrival on the world stage by winning Wimbledon at the age of 17. The Russian went on to win the US and Australian Opens, but another All England Club title has always been at the top of her wishlist. After a day of carnage among the other leading contenders, the 2004 champion yesterday emerged as the clear favourite to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish this weekend.
While the most significant losers yesterday were the Williams sisters, the fourth round also saw the departure of Caroline Wozniacki. The world No 1 was beaten 1-6, 7-6, 7-5 by Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova, whose ball-striking power appeared to be in inverse proportion to her 5ft 3in frame. The world No 24 now meets Sharapova, who reached the quarter-finals for the first time in five years with a convincing 6-4, 6-2 victory over China's Peng Shuai.
On a sweltering afternoon, with the on-court temperature reaching 34C, Sharapova covered her legs with ice wrapped in towels during changeovers. She said it was "like playing a completely different tournament" after the rain and gloom of the first week. "I'm used to the humidity, so that really helped me," she said. "I grew up in Florida and still live there and train there."
Sharapova was coolness personified in the match, hitting 27 winners and making just 10 unforced errors. "Last year I lost in the fourth round to Serena and this year I find myself in the quarter-finals and I'm giving myself an opportunity to go even further so I'm quite happy about that," Sharapova said afterwards. "I have to be a little realistic about the fact that I haven't gotten past the fourth round in a few years. This is a step forward."
The Russian is not the highest-ranked player left in the women's tournament. Victoria Azarenka, ranked one place higher at No 5 in the world order, beat Nadia Petrova 6-2, 6-2 to reach the quarter-finals for the second time. She now plays Austria's Tamira Paszek, the world No 80, whose career had stalled somewhat after she burst on the scene at the age of 17 to reach the fourth round here four years ago. Paszek beat Russia's Ksenia Pervak 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 and is through to her first Grand Slam quarter-final.
Petra Kvitova, a semi-finalist here last year, could be the most significant challenger to Sharapova. The hard-hitting Czech, who meets Tsvetana Pironkova in the quarter-finals, needed just 45 minutes to beat Belgium's Yanina Wickmayer 6-0, 6-2. Germany's Sabine Lisicki, who is playing here thanks to a wild card, faces Marion Bartoli after beating Petra Cetkovska 7-6, 6-1.
Given the line-up in the last eight, Wozniacki will surely regard this as a lost opportunity to claim her first Grand Slam title. "I had a chance and I usually take it," Wozniacki said. "But today it just didn't go my way."